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Matt Hancock acted unlawfully over COVID-19 contracts

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A court has ruled that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully when his Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) did not reveal procurement contract details throughout the pandemic.

The judge said the Health Secretary had ‘breached his legal obligation’ by not publishing the details within 30 days of signing the contracts. The judge went on to say that the public had a right to know where vast amounts of public funds were spent and how the contracts were awarded.

The government said it fully recognised the “importance of transparency”. Labour claimed the government’s awarding of contracts was “plagued by a lack of transparency, cronyism and waste”.

The National Audit Office reported in November 2020, that between February and July 2020, DHSC spent £12.5 billion on 32 billion items of PPE.

The Good Law Project and three MPs, Debbie Abrahams from Labour, Caroline Lucas from the Green Party and Layla Moran from the Liberal Democrats took legal action against Matt Hancock’s department for its “wholesale failure” to disclose the agreed contract details.

The government is required by law to publish a ‘contract award notice’ within 30 days of agreement for any public goods or services over the value of £120,000. The Good Law Project also highlighted that the government’s own transparency policy states that public contracts worth more than £10,000 must be published.

Mr Justice Chamberlain ruled: “There is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the secretary of state breached his legal obligation to publish contract award notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.” The judge went on to say, “There is also no dispute that the secretary of state failed to publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy.”

“The public were entitled see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded,” he added. Mr Justice Chamberlain explained this was important so that competitors of businesses awarded contracts could understand whether the obligations had been breached and because bodies such as the National Audit Office and Parliament can “scrutinise and ask questions about this expenditure”.

Mr Justice Chamberlain acknowledged that the situation faced by the DHSC during the first few months of the pandemic had been “unprecedented”. He said it was “understandable that attention was focused on procuring what was thought necessary to save lives”. But he added that the DHSC’s “historic failure” to publish details of contracts awarded during the pandemic was “an excuse, not a justification”. However, the judge dismissed the Good Law Project’s argument that there had been a department-wide “policy of de-prioritising compliance” with the law and guidance.

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